Let’s look at three ways 2012 won’t be like the last presidential cycle online, and a couple of ways it will.
Field Goes Mobile: Cellphones and mobile devices have been the “next big thing” in digital politics for years, but with smartphone adoption likely to be approaching 50 percent, 2012 may finally see them break big. One certain venue: the door-to-door ground war. Both Democrats and Republicans have tested cellphone canvassing apps and mobile websites that give volunteers directions, offer talking points and video for instant persuasion, and allow immediate sign-ups to the campaign’s email and text lists. With the right app or mobile site, canvassers can update voter files as they block-walk, giving campaign managers instant insight into conditions on the ground. Easy prediction: the Obama campaign will take mobile canvassing tools national and so will their eventual Republican opponent.
Tablets should play a role too, since they offer even more capabilities on-the-go (at recent events in Iowa, Slate.com’s Dave Weigel has reported that Michele Bachmann’s staff worked crowds with iPads strapped on like catcher’s mitts). And with more and more people reading campaign emails, checking Facebook and running Google searches on iPhones, Androids and Blackberries, mobile must be a consideration for political fundraisers and advertisers, too. Who knows—maybe even those funky-looking QR codes will eventually catch on.
Twitter: It was relatively new in 2008—and politically, it was a non-factor. Barack Obama had one of the biggest Twitter fan bases in the world as of Election Day, and with all of 118,107 followers, it was less than 1 percent of the size of his email list. Since then, though, tens of millions of Americans have turned to micro-blogging, particularly those of us in the political space. Even if a campaign’s own Twitter feed isn’t very active, Twitter will shape the communications environment in which a modern political fight takes place.
Twitter’s strength is speed—breaking news now flashes around the world in seconds, and news stories and political message points have plenty of fresh ground in which to take root. It’s also good at connecting people, and smart campaigns will not only tweet themselves but will also spend time cultivating Twitter activists and prominent voices in their districts and beyond. You’ll want to have good relationships established before you need them, meaning that it’s time to cash in those chits with Ashton Kutcher.
Advertising Everywhere: In 2008, campaigns pretty much ran two kinds of online ads: search (Google) and display (banners and rich media). The Obama campaign saw terrific ROI on Google Ads in particular. But what really mattered is the fact that most political operations didn’t run much online advertising, at least compared with TV.
The 2012 cycle should be different. For one thing, television viewers are increasingly elusive—many people no longer consume live television in significant amounts—pushing ad buyers to look elsewhere for eyeballs. Search ads are still standard, both for message-testing and for recruitment, but Facebook advertising also soaks up significant political money (though advertisers of all stripes have seen Facebook’s ROI drop as its ad rates go up).
The big story? Video advertising should explode, particularly on sites like Hulu that act as television replacements. One factor is that consultants know how to make in-stream ads, because they’re basically TV spots. Video will also figure in banner-style ads on news and content websites, and display ads will benefit as well from new techniques that allow advertisers to follow people from site to site.
Finally, campaigns and outside groups will continue to target potential supporters via ads on blogs, local newspaper websites, activist communities and other online watering holes.
Deja Vu All Over Again?
The more things change, the more some of them stay the same. A couple of examples for 2012.
Email Ain’t Dead Yet: Email’s imminent death has been proclaimed more times than I can count, but it remains a digital politician’s best friend. For both mobilization and fundraising, email’s response rate continues to dwarf that of Facebook or Twitter. Plus, it’s still the one truly ubiquitous tool on the Internet—your mom uses it, and so does (just about) everyone else.
For 2012, a new generation of supporter-management tools like NationBuilder promises to make robust email campaigns (and email-driven fundraising) even easier for candidates up and down the ladder. Note that NationBuilder also integrates social media channels like Twitter and Facebook into its database alongside email, something that I suspect will be standard in campaign grassroots software in the future. To give you a sense of email’s potential, Obama raised two-thirds of his online money directly from someone clicking on a “donate” button in a campaign message in 2008, and I won’t be surprised if the 2012 number is close.
Politics is Politics: Gee-whiz toys are fun, but they don’t mean a thing if they don’t help you win. Politics is still about the candidate, the message and the moment, and all that really matters is 50 percent-plus-one-vote on Election Day. Enough said.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a fifteen-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. A contributor to Campaigns & Elections, Delany writes C&E's Technology Bytes section. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also in Technology Bytes this issue: Perry's social scientists and Obama's data brigade.